Welcome to the future. Low-lying islands, from the Maldives to the Nicobar Islands, are half-drowned. More than 140,000 people are dead. The number of environmental refugees could run into the millions. No, this isn't just a news report from the end of 2004. It's the story of the 21st century, as predicted by the world's most distinguished climatologists. Welcome to the era of Weather of Mass Destruction.
Last week's tsunami was a fluke of geology, an accident unrelated to human activity. All we can do is grieve and give to the victims. But there is overwhelming evidence that extreme weather events are on the increase -- and we humans are responsible for more and more of them.
The images from Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia, India and Thailand should serve as a wake-up call about how vulnerable we are to the forces of wind, rain and sea. So why aren't we listening to the scientific experts who warn that we are slowly, certainly turning these forces against ourselves?
British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted last September he was "scared" by the briefings the government's chief scientists gave him about climate change. He summarized the available evidence starkly: "The 10 warmest years on record have all been since 1990. There has been the most drastic rise in temperatures for over 1,000 years in the Northern hemisphere. Extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent. Glaciers are melting. Sea ice and snow cover is declining. Sea levels are rising and are forecast to rise by another 88cm by 2100. This will threaten 100 million people globally who currently live below this level."
So the islands currently underwater aren't going to dry out for long. I wish this were environmentalist scaremongering. I wish these warnings were the apocalyptic ramblings of a few mavericks. They are not. Blair was simply repeating the views of 95 percent of environmental scientists. (The other 5 percent are, mysteriously, often on the payroll of oil companies).
We should listen when even Blair -- a famously business-friendly, optimistic prime minister -- warns that "the emission of greenhouse gases associated with industrialization and strong economic growth is causing global warming at a rate that began as significant, became alarming and is now completely unsustainable in the long term. And by the long term, I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly within my own. And by unsustainable, I do not mean a phenomenon causing problems of adjustment. It could radically alter human existence."
Man-made climate change was claiming thousands of victims before this natural disaster reinforced our mistakes. Anybody who wants to understand the threat we face has to read Mark Lynas' extraordinary recent book "High Tide: News From a Warming World." It's the only piece of non-fiction that has ever given me nightmares. The British journalist traveled across the world to visit the canaries in the environmental mineshaft: the areas in the world already being affected by global warming.
Lynas left Britain in 2000, as we were experiencing the heaviest rainfall and worst flooding since records began. His first stop was Alaska, where temperatures are rising -- as in the rest of the Arctic -- 10 times faster than in the rest of the world. For the first time in millennia, the permanently frozen ground on which Alaska was built is thawing. Houses are sagging. Roads are collapsing. He saw entire buildings that have been swallowed up by holes in the ground.
From there he traveled to Tuvalu, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. Tuvalu should be in our thoughts this week, because its 10,000 people are going to permanently face the fate temporarily doled out by nature to the Maldives: being swallowed by the sea. More than 70 percent of the world's sandy shorelines are retreating, and Tuvalu will, if current trends continue, vanish beneath the waves within the next 50 years, a new Atlantis existing for humans only in myth.
The people of Tuvalu currently are evacuating their beloved island to live in exile. "Climate change," they say, "is slowly drowning our island."
I wonder how they feel about the elaborate displays of Western sympathy for the victims of the tsunami. Do they ask why we cry for those victims yet condemn them to a slow-motion version of the same movie?
Anybody who thinks Weather of Mass Destruction is only wrecking human lives in short, sharp tsunami-lashings isn't paying attention.
So if we want to reverse this man-made slide into disaster -- if we don't want the events of this week to be just the first of many -- what can we do?
Some environmentalists seem to relish the fact that these disasters force us to rethink the way we live. They seem to think it was always immoral to live apart from nature. I don't agree. I love industrial civilization. I love big cities and the rootless cosmopolitan culture that comes with them. I don't get teary-eyed thinking about meadows and rainbows and forests.
But whether we like it or not, we are going to have to make some massive concessions to the planet we live on. You don't have to love nature to admit this; you just have to love life. Yes, changing the way we live is going to be a wrenching and problematic process but it will be far more painful to deal with rapid climate change and face many more weeks like last one.
The best-known solution is woefully inadequate. The Kyoto Treaty promises a real cut in the world's carbon emissions of just 2 percent within a decade. The Royal Commission on Environmental Protection found that, in fact, a 60 percent reduction by 2050 is necessary if we are to seriously reduce the dangers of climate change.
Yet even Kyoto's paltry step in the right direction has been rejected by the SUV-stuffed United States, which pumps out 25 percent of the world's carbon emissions despite having only 4 percent of the world's population.
Some brave campaigners are taking legal steps to try to force the United States to take responsibility. The Inuit, facing the melting of their Arctic environment, are considering lawsuits against major U.S. polluters, as are the people of Tuvalu.
But this is urgent. We cannot wait. If the United States cannot be forced or shamed into cutting back its carbon emissions, the rest of the world needs to take responsibility and consider technological solutions. One proposal being discussed widely in the scientific community is carbon sequestration. This involves the capturing of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at the point of emission and storing it in underground reservoirs, injecting it into deep oceans, or converting it into rock-like solid materials.
It's a way of continuing to use fossil fuels while holding down the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. It's not a perfect solution but it might buy us enough time for the Americans to see sense and for all of us to begin the transition to renewable sources of energy.
Take a good look at the newspapers' front pages. Unless there is drastic action to tackle climate change, you will have to get used to extreme weather events. Get used to drowned tourists. Get used to armies of children orphaned by the weather. Get used to huge outflows of refugees running from an encroaching sea. Next time, we won't have the comfort of knowing it had nothing to do with us.
Johann Hari writes for The Independent in Britain.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer